LONDON — The perception that men typically die before women may just be a myth, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have found that men actually have a good chance of outliving women — especially if they’re married or went to college.
The study discovered that men have generally had a 25 to 50-percent chance of outliving women over the last 200 years. That number includes men on all continents, spanning 199 countries since the 1800s.
“Sometimes large differences in life expectancy mask substantial overlap in lifespan,” the researchers write in a media release.
The new study challenges the conventional wisdom that men simply don’t live as long as women. This perception comes from the observations of many different populations throughout the world throughout time. However, researchers say many of the studies looking at gender differences in survival compare life expectancy, rather than the actual number of years someone lives.
To see what a man’s actual chances are of living longer than a female peer, the team examined the “outsurvival” statistic — a study of sex differences at death among 199 global populations over the last two centuries. The statistic measures the odds that someone from a population with a high death rate will live longer than someone from a population with a low death rate.
Study authors also used information from the Human Mortality Database, which covers 41 countries, and separate data from Germany and the United Kingdom. Additionally, the team looked at data from the World Population Prospects 2019, which gives scientists sex-specific life tables from 199 countries at five-year interval, starting from 1950-54 and ending in 2015-19.
Researchers than compared the odds of men outliving women after separating them based on their education level and marital status.
An even-money bet?
The results show that, since 1850, the probability that a man will outlive a woman has generally stayed between 25 and 50 percent across time and all global populations. Simply put, between one and two out of every four men have outlived the average woman over the last 200 years. That’s nearly as good as the flip of a coin.
On certain occasions, that number actually rose above 50 percent — in Iceland in 1891, Jordan in 1950–54, Iran in 1950–64, Iraq in 1960–69, before 1985 in Bangladesh, India, and the Maldives, and in Bhutan between 1995 and 2010.
The team notes that the odds that men would outlive women had been falling until the 1970s in developed nations. However, the probability is now increasing across all populations. Meanwhile, changes in life expectancy mainly had to do with differences in smoking and other behaviors.
The odds of men outliving women is also higher in low and middle-income countries. Study authors say this has less to do with gender equality and more to do with a higher death rate among young and infant girls in those parts of the world.
In the United States, the probability of the average man outliving his female counterpart was 40 percent between 2015 and 2019. However, the study finds there are certain things a man can do to change those odds, for better or worse.
Getting married and going to college could save your life!
Researchers found that married men had a 39-percent chance of outliving women, compared to just 37 percent for those staying single. Those with a university degree saw their odds of a long life rise to 43 percent, compared to just 39 percent for men only having a high school diploma.
Overall, married men with a college degree had the largest “outsurvival” advantage over single women with no college experience. Moreover, the expression “happy wife, happy life” appears to be true! When it comes a partner’s influence on health, men in stable relationships benefited more than women.
“A blind interpretation of life expectancy differences can sometimes lead to a distorted perception of the actual inequalities [in lifespan],” the study authors write.
“Not all females outlive males, even if a majority do. But the minority that do not is not small. For example, a sex difference in life expectancy at birth of 10 years can be associated with a probability of males outliving females as high as 40%, indicating that 40% of males have a longer lifespan than that of a randomly paired female,” the team explains.
“Not all males have a disadvantage of 10 years, which is overlooked by solely making comparisons of life expectancy. However, a small number of males will live very short lives to result in that difference. For example, more baby boys die than baby girls in most countries.”
Men still engage in more risky activities
Although men have better odds of living a full life than many may think, the study notes the death rate is still falling faster for women under 50. A lot of this has to do with better care for infants and children.
With that in mind, men still face a survival disadvantage at both younger and older ages. Researchers say this is because men are more likely to have an accident or be the victim of a homicide in their 20s and 30s. They are also more likely to smoke and drink heavily — leading to more fatal cases of cancer in their 60s.
The study is published in the journal BMJ Open.